What you don’t know about being injured could leave you homeless
How one organization is helping cops with an often occurring – but seldom discussed – legal and financial nightmare
Like most of the public, I assumed officers injured in the line of duty were taken care of. Maybe you assume that, too. Not so, as Randy Sutton, a 34-year police veteran, learned.
Randy became one of the highest decorated officers for lifesaving, exemplary service and valor in Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department history. He had faced death and prevailed.
Yet 34 years into his service, when Randy suffered a career-ending stroke in his patrol car, he faced his worst professional nightmare – a yearlong legal battle with his own department and workers’ compensation over necessary medical care and benefits. Randy eventually won, but not without significant economic stress. Worse, he felt abandoned by his department and the public he had served and protected for decades.
Randy had been trained to face danger, but he discovered a system he wasn’t prepared for. Most police departments are self-insured and hire third-party administrators. Randy’s department and many others pay lawyers on behalf of the third-party administrators to fight officers’ claims. Then there’s workers’ comp boards that vary state by state in their processes and what they cover.
Randy discovered he wasn’t alone. Thousands of other officers’ similar struggles inspired him to found The Wounded Blue, whose mission is to improve the lives of injured and disabled officers through “Support, Education, Assistance and Legislation.”
The extent of the problem
From 2003–2017, an average of 55,704 officers were physically assaulted each year. Add to that number all the other on-the-job injuries resulting from traffic accidents, training accidents, foot pursuits, falls, etc. Injuries range from minor to catastrophic and career-ending. There is great disparity in how these officers are treated.
Approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. employ around 900,000 federal, state, county and municipal officers. They have different pension systems and employment contracts. Some have collective bargaining and unions, some do not. Some are protected by strong workers’ comp laws, some are not. An officer who is injured and disabled in New York City where workers’ comp laws are robust, will be treated differently than one in Bismarck, North Dakota.
If there is not a union or protective association, officers may have to accept whatever their agency or city offers in the way of medical treatment – or pursue long and arduous appeals. Officers who are hurt often lose a major portion of their salaries during their healing process (if the injuries are only temporarily disabling) and can also lose the ability to earn enough to support their families.
The Wounded Blue documentary
Randy suggested I watch the documentary "The Wounded Blue,” a film that tells the compelling stories of six police officers who inspired him to start his foundation. I did. I cried – for the six and the thousands more.
As just one example, during a high-speed vehicle pursuit, Lt. Charles Neill was shot in the head through his windshield. He blacked out and his vehicle rolled 14 times and hit a tree. His head wound resulted in memory, cognitive and speech problems and he ruptured discs in his neck and back – all requiring therapy.
Despite his grievous injuries, Lt. Neill was discharged from the ICU and the hospital after seven days because that was the time limit on his private insurance and workers’ comp had yet to accept his claim. After a full year of workers’ comp denying his referral to a neurologist, Lt. Neill and his wife, desperate, went to the media. Soon after his claim was approved. But proper medical treatment was only part of the Neill family’s problems.
Before his injuries, Lt. Neill worked two jobs – one for his PD and one for a state university PD. He brought a net weekly income of $1,500 a week home to his wife and three growing boys.
After he was shot, he lost his university job and was left with $375 a week in workers’ comp – a 75% loss of income. There was no support structure in place through his agency, city or state to help. For Lt. Neill, it became and continues to be a struggle to juggle bills or even put food on the table.
The film’s maker, Jason Harney, noted, “Many officers are fired when they’re unable to come back to full duty after one year. Others are thrust into a workers’ comp system designed to work against them. They lose their income and end up selling their homes and cars and struggle to put food on the table for their kids.”
The motto of The Wounded Blue Foundation is, "Never Forgotten. Never Alone." Check out their website and the support, education, assistance and legislation they offer. Don’t wait until you need it.
One legislative need The Wounded Blue has identified is a comprehensive federal workers’ compensation law that is responsive to the unique work demands of first responders. Help by urging your state legislators to support it.
The foundation is also hard at work on the Protecting America’s First Responders Act (HR 2812), which is intended to update and improve the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program. Created in 1976, the program was much too narrow in its inclusion and woefully administered. During Police Week, the bill passed the Senate unanimously. The Wounded Blue and others are working to get the act out of the House Judiciary Committee and on to a floor vote this year. You can help by contacting your legislators.
Officers would also do well to support Putting First Responders First (S1278 and HR2560). Disabled officers can face 50%-75% pay reductions and lose their ability to save for retirement. Spouses often can’t work because they’ve become full-time caregivers. This law would make line-of-duty disability pensions exempt from federal withholding tax for the life of the disabled office instead of just until the officer reaches “retirement age,” which can vary from agency to agency or even within agencies as pension policies get changed.
You may also want to look into disability insurance since not every department has your six.
Next month: Too many officers’ physical wounds and injuries are being neglected. Mental wounds present an even greater travesty of disregard. But mental job-related wounds can also lead to disability, loss of income and, when ignored, death. They can also often be successfully treated and, like many physical injuries, with training can be prevented.